COVID has taken my 46-year-old nephew, the father of two boys, husband to his college sweetheart. Being there for my sister, who already lost one son to a motorcycle accident, would be my desire, but I have become infamous in my large family by being absent from family funerals.
This is not because I do not care and have no love for them in a family way, but my family is part of an evangelical church in the Bible Belt. They made it clear 32 years ago when I “came out”, that since I was not going to be joining them in heaven there wasn’t much need to expend energy including me or my husband in family gatherings here on earth. And it was clear we were not welcome. Never openly rude but excluded when we were there by a wall of silence and judgmental indifference.
Today I have the grief of an Uncle who celebrated this nephew’s birth “before I was gay.” In my 20’s and 30’s I was a hero to my nieces and nephews. They knew my high school and college accomplishments, and I was the first among my immediate family to attend and graduate college. I accomplished this entirely on my own, with no family support financially or emotionally, as my father had decreed that I was getting “above myself” thus dismissing me even at that point and turning his back to that endeavor. (I am the youngest of five, one brother, three sisters.)
Thus, like many of my LGBTQ friends, I went through my adult and career years on my own. My fifteen-year straight marriage had ended abruptly, when I realized that I was indeed gay and would never be happy in that marriage. Most backs were turned at that juncture. I remained very much in the lives of my three children, and my partner now-husband helped me parent throughout their young years and teen years, and they look upon him as another parent.
My husband’s family accepted me warmly, and became my family, and celebrated our children’s lives and events along with us. Chosen friends became my own family. My large biological family had the support of one another, and nieces and nephews grew up and married and had children largely without notice that one Uncle was missing at family events. And after a while, seldom remembered.
My mother, now gone a decade, called me when my father died 20 years ago, and asked me not to come to his funeral. Even though I was 1600 miles away, I was making plans to travel and attend. My mother did not explain why, but I knew why. He would not want me there. The embarrassing gay son. When she passed, I did not go to her funeral. My ache was from my home states away, but the family did gather to support each other on that and many other occasions. If I was unwanted at his funeral, I knew she felt the same about her own. The gay son would have to grieve away from that family group.
My story is not uncommon among my LGBTQ family. From the moment I started to live my life authentically, I lost my biological family ties. Grief has become yet another emotion and experience that happens away from biological family bonds. Our chosen family supports us. Our biological family excludes us.
A portion of that fault I now feel is mine. Being pushed away, I did not push back to be included. I allowed them to trivialize my relationship and life, without making the effort to keep those relationships. I feel now that if I had done so, I would have helped pave the way for the LGBTQ nieces and nephews I now see that are being repressed and forced into hiding and false marriages just to keep those family bonds. I find my family starting to realize what we all lost. A few are reaching out to try to recapture some of those family bonds.
I do see cracks in the religious façade that has caused so much family division and heartache. This is mostly because I have begun to reach out to those who are open to including me and my husband in their lives. I have started the conversations that need to happen before wounds can be healed. The wounds are deep, and healing them will not happen all at once, but I see some signs that there is recognition that being “the Gay Uncle” is not a damnation to hell.
They are starting to see diversity among themselves. One niece is transgender. At least one nephew is gay. One niece is entering a marriage soon with her black fiancé. The lines are starting to soften. Not in their church. Hate is still very much a part of Sunday sermons. But I see hope in the younger ones who are starting to question why this must be. They do not want to exclude the cousin they grew up with. They want to keep those family ties and memories and relationships, and they see their friends becoming more tolerant and open to diversity.
My own work is in Death Care. I meet with grieving families and write and deliver funeral services as a Certified Celebrant at a large funeral home complex. I understand grief. Deaths bring out the best and the worst emotions in our families. Having been through this so many times in my own family, I understand the complexities. I try to bridge and heal. Thankfully, I see this happening in my own biological family. To my LGBTQ family, I say take heart. At 67 years of age, I see change coming.
One day soon, you will be able to live your life without distinction. Without society stigma. When you grieve you will not have to do that alone, far away from your beginnings. But our struggle is not over yet. As Delores Huerta said, “Every moment is an organizing opportunity, every person a potential activist, every minute a chance to change the world.” Stay vigilant. Stay open to possibilities. Always educate and be visible. Doing so brings down the barriers around us all.
Certified Celebrant and Proud Gay Father and Husband.